BY Jonathan Griffin in Opinion | 11 APR 16
Featured in
Issue 179

Life Story

The importance of an artist's biography

BY Jonathan Griffin in Opinion | 11 APR 16

On the very last page of Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art (2015), the biography’s author, Nancy Princenthal, admits that Martin would probably have thought her book utterly worthless. She quotes her from a handwritten note reproduced  near the start of Arne Glimcher’s semi-biographical monograph, Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances (2012): ‘Almost everyone believes that art is from the experience of the artist […] They believe that it is affected by where you live and what you do. But one’s “biography”, character, abilities, knowledge – all of that has nothing to do with artwork. Inspiration is the beginning, the middle and the end.’

Martin – whose retrospective opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in April – did not consider the biography an appropriate lens through which to view any work of art, least of all her own. Not only was she anti-literary when it came to grasping the ‘inspiration’ behind visual art (she especially disdained critics), she was opposed to the idea that she should take any credit for her work in the first place. These paintings were no more hers, she once said, than the potatoes that grow in a farmer’s field are his: ‘We are merely the locus where it happened.’

For better or for worse, I am about to write a biography of an artist – the self-taught painter and collector William N. Copley. I spend a lot of time pondering  the objections Martin raises, which are shared (for a variety of reasons) by plenty of other artists, too. Should they prevent me from writing my book? I don’t think  so. Does the fact that Copley, like Martin, is no longer alive make the task easier or more fraught with ethical dilemmas? Quite possibly the latter. When writing about living artists, we critics must always accept that they may roundly reject our advances on  their work, even if we also hold onto a vague but well-meaning notion that, ultimately, we have their best interests at heart. The deceased artist does not have the luxury of being able to respond. The critic is not a servant, however – either to the artist or to the reader. It is the artwork that the critic serves. (Though who knows what an artwork wants? The critic must guess.)

All biography, for me, is valuable. There is no information about an artist that I wished  I did not know nor that has been irrelevant in thinking about their work. Nevertheless, there are plenty of things – the way the artist looks, for example, or dresses or behaves – that I would not dream of including in my criticism. Even before making reference to an artist’s sexuality  or race, for instance, I will scan the available literature (and, yes, that includes press releases) to ensure the information is already in the public domain. That feels  to me like a responsible –  if cautious – way to proceed. 

When does biography stray into an invasion of privacy or the violation of an artist’s wishes to control their own narrative? The journalist in me does not accept for a moment the idea that artists should have an editorial veto on how their art is discussed. They may not be best-placed to determine what facts about their lives are relevant to a clearer perception of their work; artists often tend towards the formalist idea that their art contains everything the audience needs to know. The artist Richard Tuttle, a friend of Martin’s, declined to share  his recollections for Princenthal’s biography. As she notes in her introduction: when asked by people whether he misses Martin, Tuttle refers them to her paintings because ‘everything of her is in them. There is’, he said, ‘nothing  to miss.’

Martin’s idea that an artist  is ‘merely the locus’ where a  work of art happens may not, actually, contradict the notion  that the artist’s life is worth examining too. Any artwork is  the product of an unfathomably complex admixture of personal experience, external circumstance, interior drives, biology and psychic chemistry. Martin, who  was tormented by schizophrenia throughout her life, may have  been more inclined than most  to believe that her body was a conduit for forces beyond her control. In addition, in the 1950s she encountered Tao Buddhism, which teaches selflessness  and submission to fate: ideas  that contributed to her use  of automatism and belief  in extra-conscious inspiration.

The point is that the combination of these and other influences was specific to Martin and relatable to particular conditions, all of which Princenthal’s biography marshals to illuminating effect. Even the most spurious personal details acquire significance. Did you know that Martin was a fan of Agatha Christie’s novels? She claimed it was because they went ‘in one ear and out  the other’, although Princenthal speculates that Christie’s skill in organizing stories ‘around elegantly constructed systems of perfect and rather stringent logic’ must have appealed to the painter, too.

Such surprising discoveries seem, to me, to be the best reasons to read a biography. Historical studies (and much academic criticism) incline towards a feeling for the gestalt, the bigger  picture, smoothed of its wrinkles. Biographical narrative, on the other hand, is coloured by incongruities and crossed-wires that interrupt the grand flow.  It shows us how complicated and messy all lives are, and proves,  as with Martin, that chaos can contribute to expressions of great simplicity and clarity.

Jonathan Griffin is a writer based in Los Angeles, USA, and a contributing editor of frieze.